Wednesday. 13/10/2021

The Monocle Minute
On Design

Opinion / Nic Monisse

Razing standards

If you’re an architect who lives to the age of 93, it’s inevitable that some of your work will be torn down during your lifetime. But Owen Luder, who died this week, was particularly hard done by. Despite being one of only two architects to be elected president of the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) twice, he was perhaps most famous as a prominent member of the Rubble Club, a tongue-in-cheek support group for architects who have seen their buildings destroyed.

Three of the most iconic works Luder designed with his partner Rodney Gordon, the Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth (demolished in 2004), Derwent Tower in Gateshead (2012) and the nearby Trinity Square carpark and shopping centre (2010) – which was replaced with bland student housing and an uninspiring supermarket – all met the wrecking ball. All were beautiful brutalist structures that fell out of fashion and into disrepair. And all, right up until their last day, had the capacity to uplift a new generation and galvanise future designers.

In context, their demolition seems hasty. Most were only 40 years old, a short lifetime given that most buildings are designed to last 100 or more. We know that our tastes change: the concrete of brutalism, a material that Luder had no choice but to work with in postwar Britain, is now exceptionally popular. But it seems unwise to knock something down on those grounds alone.

Which begs the question: before any potential demolition, should developers first be enticed to revitalise or refurbish a building? Doing so could involve relaxed planning permissions or a tax exemption for retrofitting. Such a move could see more architectural treasures saved. And there’s clearly an appetite for it: this year’s Pritzker prize winners, Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal, won for their refurbishment efforts.

I’d like to think that it’s something Luder would have supported. After all, he oversaw the conversion of a listed fire station into the South London Theatre in 1967. As for me, I might consider a trip to that uninspiring supermarket – if it’s in a repurposed brutalist carpark in Gateshead.

The project / Kitakami Health Centre, Kitakami

On a roll

Adaptive reuse projects, where a building’s original use is altered to suit a new one, are key to making the most of existing space and infrastructure in dense urban areas. And Unemori Teco Associates (UTA) has just unveiled a fine example of such an approach in the centre of Kitakami in Japan.

The Tokyo-based architectural firm has turned a boxy commercial building into the community-focused Kitakami Health and Childcare Centre. To enable the transformation, UTA gutted the bottom two floors of the eight-storey building and reconfigured the space to include a central atrium, around which now sits a café, indoor playground, exhibition area and consulting rooms.

Image: Kai Nakamura
Image: Kai Nakamura
Image: Kai Nakamura

To soften the harshness of the existing rectangular space, UTA designed undulating ceilings and floors. The wavy shapes provide an engaging playground floor and the ceiling slopes upwards to provide appropriate clearance for medical vehicles, while also hiding vents and air ducts. It’s a design aesthetic mirrored in a similarly curving awning over the entrance – a move that’s sure to make the former office more inviting for both visitors and Kitakami’s community.

Design News / Le Nid d’Aigle bunkhouse, Quebec

In symphony

Québec’s Lanaudière, a rural region between the Saint Lawrence River and the Laurentian Mountains, is home to a new bunkhouse for young musicians. Called Le Nid d’Aigle and catering to children from a nearby music camp, the building sits on a forested, lakeside headland – a setting that inspired the design approach of lead architect Robert Lavoie of Mainstudio. Broken into two main structures, to separate the sleeping and bathroom areas, the building aims to provide a sense of harmony and correspondence between visitors and the surrounding nature, through a pared-back aesthetic.

Image: Félix Michaud
Image: Félix Michaud
Image: Félix Michaud

Appropriately, given the age of the campers, this has translated into a design that echoes the way in which a child might draw a house: a few vertical lines for the walls, a triangle for the roof and simple details to suggest doors and windows. The completed building is both playful and sleek, thanks to its appearance and monochromatic white façade that reflects the surrounding landscape – an outcome that’s sure to make for happy campers.

Words with... / Omer Arbel, Vancouver

Elements of surprise

Multidisciplinary creative Omer Arbel is best known as the co-founder of Bocci, a design and manufacturing company with bases in Vancouver and Berlin. But he’s also an accomplished architect with his building-design practice OAO, a sculptor with works at the likes of British Columbia’s Monte Clark Gallery, and one of the industrial designers behind Canada’s 2010 Olympic medals. To learn more about his design ethos and approach to work, we caught up with Arbel for this week’s episode of Monocle On Design Extra.

Image: Fahim Kassam

You have previously said that your approach to design is like that of a composer. Can you expand on this analogy?
A composer is one way of thinking about it. Another analogy I use is that I’m the cook and I write the recipes, and then other people execute the recipes with different ingredients or with their own personal intuition and make many different meals from my recipe. Or – and this is probably most accurate – that I’m a choreographer and my colleagues are the dancers. So depending on that particular group, the interpretation of my choreography is different, as is every iteration of the procedure.

Why do you prefer this approach in which you allow artisans the freedom to express themselves, rather than giving them a set of close rules to follow?
Early on I noticed that the initial vision for one of the most successful works that we’ve had, called “14”, was so different to the way it actually ended up being executed. Due to the realities of production, the material qualities of glass and the time constraints involved, it ended up being far from what I imagined – but much better. I was confronted by the fact that the best parts about this work were not designed but related to the intrinsic chemical, physical and mechanical properties of glass. So I had to have an honest conversation with myself and decide that that moment of surprise was worth pursuing. Since then we’ve structured the practice to really instigate or invite those moments of surprise from analogue experimentation with materials; we only have a very vague idea of where we’re going when we start an exploration.

This carries over to your work as an architect. You don’t rely on computer renderings and your making process is very much rooted in analogue practice. Can you tell us about that?
For architecture projects, we make 3D models that are huge in scale, the size of minivans, because we want to be able to poke our heads into them and see and touch things. I hate renderings, increasingly sophisticated ways of modelling on the computer, visualising and printing. I overtly reject all these things as, for us, it’s the tactile quality of the work that is essential, almost sacred. As soon as we stray too far away from the actual thing, we get lost.

To hear more from Omer Arbel, listen to this week’s edition of ‘Monocle on Design Extra’, airing Thursday.

From the archive / Foldable chair, Pavia

Maker’s mark

The origins of many of the finest examples of Italian mid-century furniture can be traced back to the workshop of Roberto Poggi in the town of Pavia, just south of Milan. The likes of Marco Zanuso, Vico Magistretti and the young Renzo Piano trusted Poggi to realise their designs and, for 30 years, the woodworker was the exclusive furniture manufacturer to Milanese architect Franco Albini.

Beginning in the 1950s, the working relationship between Albini and Poggi, who was known to be more collaborator than contractor, was a close and productive one. In this entirely wooden folding chair from 1952, the elegant eye of the architect (a disciple of Gio Ponti) is unmistakable but so is a meticulous attention to engineering detail. Lightweight but solid, minimal but warm, the chair is the product of an even-footed exchange between designer and craftsman that we wish was still the norm.

Release of the week / Vanity Mahjong, Hong Kong

Ahead of the game

Louis Vuitton has always been a trendsetter when it comes to fashion but its influence also extends to the world of tabletop games. When the French house released its limited-edition mahjong trunk set more than 20 years ago, it prompted other labels to follow suit with their own iterations of the game, turning the tiles of this Chinese pastime into a luxury fashion staple. The trend’s originator has, however, always kept ahead of the pack with a number of releases in the ensuing years – and its latest, created in partnership with Hong Kong-based Studio Adjective, is a thing of beauty.

Called Vanity Mahjong, it was unveiled as part of Louis Vuitton’s 2021 Savoir-faire collection. The set’s design is inspired by the maison’s traditional iconography: its American walnut-and-composite stone tiles have two sides fastened by a keyhole-shaped brass piece reminiscent of the locks in the brand’s classic trunks and cases. “It extends the detail and craftsmanship from the trunk design to the game tiles,” says Studio Adjective co-founder Wilson Lee. And while it’s sure to be a hit for fashion enthusiasts, there’s good news for mahjong lovers looking to play after-hours too: the walnut outer softens the sound of the tiles when they are shuffled. Sounds like a winning design for all.

In the picture / Museo del Design Italiano, Milan

Postwar pick-me-up

For those who have been experiencing a design-related hangover since Salone del Mobile wrapped last month, Lombardy-based publisher Electa might just have the cure, thanks to its new book Museo del Design Italiano: Triennale Milano 1946-1981. Published in August to mark the opening of a permanent exhibition by the Triennale at its museum in Milan, one of Italy’s foremost cultural institutions, the 400-page tome features a selection of iconic objects drawn from its 1,600-piece collection.

Edited by the museum’s director, Marco Sammicheli, the volume is available in Italian and English. Through the selected objects, the book offers a carefully curated look at product, furniture and industrial design over 35 postwar years. Insight into the historic and aesthetic significance of every piece is complemented by images and blueprints from the Triennale’s archive. The result is a beautiful book on this important period of 20th-century design: perfect for picking up for a leisurely read or thumbing through from cover to cover. How’s that for “hair of the dog”?


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